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Racial reconciliation: across the South, communities are creating truth and reconciliation commissions to address a past of deadly violence.

ON JUNE 12, 2004, 500 PEOPLE gathered in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, to witness the swearing in of the seven members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Greensboro TRC is the first TRC created in the United States. Its mandate is to examine the murder of five activists and the wounding of ten other people by Klan and Klan-affiliated individuals on the morning of November 3, 1979. Despite the fact that the murders were caught on videotape, after two trials no one has been convicted of the murders.


The Greensboro TRC is one of a growing set of initiatives in communities throughout the United States where residents are undertaking the project of racial reconciliation that starts with acknowledging historic incidents of racial violence. The Greensboro TRC's final report was released on May 25, 2006. Its recommendations included a call on individuals involved in the 1979 murders to "reflect on their role and apologize ... to those harmed," as well as institutional reforms such as antiracism training for all city and county employees, the creation of a community justice court to handle misdemeanor cases, the development of a curriculum for the county's public schools that would include the events surrounding the murders, and the issuance of annual reports on race relations in the city. The impetuses for the projects are as diverse as the initiatives themselves. The Greensboro TRC was born from discussions surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Greensboro killings. The exhibit of lynching photos, Without Sanctuary, helped renew and reinvigorate conversations about lynching in Georgia, including the lynching of Leo Frank. The reopening of investigations into civil rights-era murders in Mississippi has contributed to a period of reflection and reconciliation in that state. Even the Senate's apology for failing to pass antilynching legislation inspired a community in Abbeville, South Carolina, to open a conversation about the lynching of Anthony Crawford in 1916.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to date is that of Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR). STAR is a regional network of individuals and organizations focused on examining the history of lynching in the South and working toward reconciliation in communities where lynchings have occurred. The creation of STAR, ironically, derives from a challenge issued by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of the South African TRC, during his two-year visiting professorship at Emory University in Atlanta. After listening to academics and community leaders offer critiques of the South African TRC, Tutu issued a challenge: "Stop studying our TRC and begin your own reconciliation process." Community leaders and academics took up the challenge and began to formulate what became STAR in 2003. STAR held its first annual conference, "Racial Violence and Reconciliation," at the University of Mississippi in March 2006.

What is most compelling about these reconciliation initiatives is their sheer diversity. Some have sought merely to open dialogue, others have focused on reopening old cases, and still others have created commemorative sites where lynchings took place. Leaders in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, commissioned the creation of a memorial to commemorate the 1920 lynching of three young Black men in that city. The bronze sculptures, unveiled in October 2003, have formed the centerpiece of a three-year effort to, as one leader said, "tell the truth ... [and] make history right." On the day designated to commemorate the lynching victims, 2,500 residents walked from a downtown site to the memorial.

A number of reconciliatory efforts have focused on the 1946 lynching of two young Black men and their two girlfriends in Walton County, Georgia. The four were killed near the Moore's Ford Bridge. The case attracted the attention of President Harry S. Truman, in large part because one of the murdered men was a veteran. Although federal investigators descended on Walton County within weeks of the lynching, no one was arrested or charged with the murder. In addition to unveiling a plaque describing the lynching on the site where it happened, members of the Moore's Ford Committee have created four scholarships named for each of the lynching victims, to be awarded to graduating public high school seniors from the region. In perhaps the most innovative reconciliation activity, the group presented a reenactment of the lynching in the woods near the Moore's Ford Bridge at an event attended by Jesse Jackson and other national civil rights leaders. The reenactment was staged to encourage federal law enforcement officials to reopen the investigation into the case, which the FBI agreed to do.

In some instances, state officials have spearheaded reconciliation efforts by ordering investigations into long-unsolved racial murders. The North Carolina General Assembly commissioned a report on an 1898 incident in which a white mob intent on wresting political power from Reconstruction-era Black leadership in Wilmington attacked the Black community. Black leaders were forced out of town into the nearby swamps. Nearly one hundred blacks are believed to have been killed in the melee. The report noted the long-term effects of the pogrom. After the murders, Blacks were not active participants in local government in Wilmington until the civil rights era, nearly 60 years later. The report stated that the ability of white mobs to kill Blacks with impunity in Wilmington let "everyone in the state, regardless of race, [know] that the white supremacy campaign was victorious on all fronts."

These many and diverse initiatives suggest that the time is ripe in America to confront our history of racial violence. As more of the first-person observers and participants who experienced these events begin to die, stories about the history of racial violence will often survive on misinformation and rumor. Unless steps are taken forthwith to break the silence that has surrounded these events, we will have lost the valuable contribution of those who can tell what it felt like to bear witness to this aspect of community life in America.

There is no question but that these stories will survive. They may survive as inchoate snippets of information, shaped by time and embellishment. But the core of the stories will prevail. The lessons about race, trust, violence and community will live on, even as the names of the participants and the details of the lynchings fade from memory. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, we have the opportunity to confront 20th century racial violence and begin a long-overdue process of truth-telling and reconciliation. If Archbishop Tutu is right, and "the past does not lie down quietly," then we will have to confront this past and its lingering effects sooner or later.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Reprinted from On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century by Sherrilyn A. Ifill. Copyright [c] 2007 Sherrilyn Ifill. By permission of Beacon Press,
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Ifill, Sherrilyn A.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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